Cider making in Forncett

Whilst there is little, if any, trace of it now, Forncett was once home to a great many apple orchards and hence to a thriving "industry" in cider making.

Records of cider-making in Norfolk date back to medieval times. In 1281, the manorial rolls of Banham show that the lord of the manor had "apple orchards reckoned at three casks of cider, price of cask 10 shillings". Indeed, a 2007 study of the history of cider-making in Norfolk found a concentration of producers around Long Stratton and in Banham.

It was in Banham that one of the best-known producers, William Gaymer, started selling cider in the mid-1800s. The entry for Banham in White's Directory for 1845 makes no mention of cider, and William Gaymer is simply listed as a "victualler" at The Crown P.H., but The Post Office Directory for 1846 describes him as landlord of The Crown, "cyder manufacturer" and farmer. It was William Gaymer, junior (1842 -1936) who built up the family business to the point at which it employed 400 men, had a London office, a Royal Warrant and a lively export trade, and was a household name.

However, the making of cider was far from just a business. In 1845 White's Directory described how "orchards are numerous in Norfolk, especially on the south side of the county, where many of the farmers make cider for their own consumption, and some little for sale."

Claude and George Brookes enjoying a glass of their cider in 1980

So, what do we know of cider-making in Forncett? A study of the 1839 tithe maps, and the later 1884 O.S. maps of Forncett, confirms that there were extensive orchards, most of which were in Forncett End. There were orchards on Tabernacle Lane, at the end of West Road, and to the west of Bentley Road. More orchards were located to the west of Chestnut Tree Farm and behind Limetree Farm (then called Home Farm). All of these were almost certainly largely used for cider-making. The land in the Tas valley was much less suited to apple cultivation and there were no major orchards there, although Hill Farm on Cheney's Lane, in Forncett St. Mary, had 2 acres of orchards. 

Map of orchards in Forncett End in 1884 

All of these orchards have now disappeared but some of them are still commemorated. Orchard Close in Forncett End was built on those that lay to the west of Bentley Road and the orchards near Chestnut Tree Farm are remembered in the names of the bungalows built nearby. 

House names near Chestnut Tree Farm 

The 1839 tithe records show that many of the orchards to the west of Bentley Road were owned by Henry Colman of Lime Tree farm and managed by John Gill West, who was running the shop later to be known as Fox's Stores. The West family certainly had a history of cider making because when Ann West's property was sold in 1823 the sale included a "cider press and mill".

Cider was being made and sold at the Soap House (also called the Norfolk Arms) back in 1754 when the publican, Robert Clarke, offered rough or smooth cider for sale at one shilling a gallon.

Ipswich Journal – 16 February 1754

Indeed, cider appears to have been the drink of choice (over ale) for all social classes. When the Rev. Robert Jack passed away in 1844 the contents of Forncett St. Peter rectory were auctioned, including the cellar which contained four "pipes" of excellent cyder.

Norfolk Chronicle - 27 April 1844

A "pipe" was a large barrel holding 125 gallons (or 570 litres) and the scale of cider production in Forncett can be deduced from an auction held in Forncett St. Mary in June 1866 when Mary Barnes, who had recently been widowed, offered for sale "15 pipes of excellent cider". So, Mary was selling more than 1800 gallons (8,500 litres) of cider!

Norwich Mercury - 16 June 1866

Cider drinking was undoubtedly widespread but, not surprisingly, it led to problems. In April 1850 Maria Brooks stole a stone bottle of cider from John Moore, the publican at the Norfolk Arms in Forncett St Peter. She was caught and sentenced to three months imprisonment in Wymondham Bridewell, three days at the end of each month to be in solitary confinement. Two years later, in 1852, two Forncett men were found to have stolen 2 gallons of cider from a barrel by boring a hole in it. The men were said to be "of good character" and were consequently only sentenced to 21 days in prison.

Norfolk News – 23 October 1852

Cider making in Forncett continued until well after World War II and Sally Tovell (née Weatherington) who lived at Forncett Stores in the 1950s recalled that "People in Forncett made excellent cider"! The cider she was referring to was made by Reggie Smith (1895-1968) who farmed close by at Maltings Farm in West Road. 

Brian Hardyman, recalled working as a young builder's apprentice at Smith's farm in the early 1950s. During their lunch break the workmen were offered a glass of cider and afterwards young Brian struggled to stand upright and climb back to the roof where he was working!

The potency of Reggie's cider was recalled by his son, Vic, who now lives in Australia.

"My Dad (Reginald) was "FAMOUS" for his cider making: it was potent stuff. I remember the local policeman, who I believe used to call on my Dad on a regular basis to check his book-keeping. On one occasion I remember my Dad offering him a glass of his cider which he drank quite quickly and said "that was like nectar I would love another one of those". My Dad warned him that because he had to ride his bicycle it would be better not to drink any more. But the policeman insisted he could handle two glasses of cider any day. So, Dad went back to the barrel and drew another glass for him.

After complimenting my Dad several times on what a great brew it was, he set off on his bicycle. BUT instead of heading straight for the gate he cycled into the pond. (If you check the photo of the farm yard you will see how that could easily happen). One very wet and drunk policeman staggered from the mouth of the pond minus his bike, then slept it off in the shed next to the cider barrels. 

Maltings Farm and the pond 

One other vivid memory I have about the cider making was when the barrel was empty of liquid there remained all the solids that my dad had added during the brew. One of these was wheat. This was thrown out in the yard for the chickens and it wasn't long before dozens of chickens were staggering around like that policeman. Unfortunately, my Dad's recipe for brewing the cider went to the grave with him. A few years later my brother Donny tried his hand at making cider but it was never the same."

It was conceivably the Smith's cider that resulted in a similar incident in Forncett in September 1940 when Edward Woodrow was fined 10s for being drunk in charge of a bicycle.

Diss Express – 22 November 1940

Sadly, we have no photos of the Smith's cider shed but the art of cider making was continued into the 1980s by George and Claude Brookes in Tharston. The Brookes brothers used a 100 year-old cider press and crush that came originally from a farm in Forncett! So, the photos below could just as well have been taken on a Forncett farm.

With particular thanks to Sally Tovell, Mick Finnemore, Pam Thurtle, Vic Smith and Brian Hardyman for their invaluable help in researching this page.